The ethnicity that best describes me

When Rami Malek accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor, I found myself moved - quite unexpectedly - to tears. Unexpected, because I had not actually seen the film for which he was nominated. In fact I’d not seen him in any film, and so I felt no particular connection to him prior to the awards. Although his performance was by all accounts remarkable, what moved me was his acceptance speech. The part in particular where he acknowledged the significance of an immigrant represented and celebrated, both in the story of Freddie Mercury, and in Rami himself, a first generation American, for receiving the award. There was within of that, some flicker of resonance for me.

Growing up a Japanese-British immigrant in New Zealand was not exactly a hard life. For the most part I was considered ‘white enough’ to pass as Pakeha - a term for fair-skinned, non-Maori New Zealanders - and while most picked up that I was part-something, or half-cast (that term still existed in my elementary school days), only some identified me as Asian. I was never quite sure if the “ethnicity that best described me” was Pakeha-New Zealander, British or Asian, and so I usually selected ‘Other’. Only recently have I begun to understand that my own racial identity is one of those that was absent from the cultural narrative I was raised in.

Thankfully, as a cisgendered, able-bodied, straight woman, most other facets of my identity have been represented fairly robustly. Although my sexuality as a woman was not - and is still not - explored in authentic ways very often, my sexual orientation and gender identity were, at least, established and visible. I did not have to work hard to understand those aspects of myself, and in many ways my examination of the one unrepresented constituent of my identity is to try to understand. To try to imagine for a moment what it might be like when not one, but many layers of one’s identity is missing from the conversation.

Only recently have I begun to feel that my Japanese-ness, although largely overlooked and invisible to most, is as much a part of me as my whiteness, especially given that I was born in Kyoto and spent the first two and a half years of my life there - eating and speaking and dreaming in Japanese. Only recently have I begun to  recognise the ways in which I internalized the casual, schoolyard racism towards Asian people that I regularly observed and occasionally experienced directly at my predominantly white school in Auckland. The ways in which I pushed my Asianness away, rejecting and even hating the things that betrayed me: my eyes (hooded or slanted or almond or small), the onigiri my mum would pack in my lunchbox, my mother’s name which was, apparently, impossible to pronounce. I denied the queasy feeling inside when my very own friends complained of the “fucking Asians” taking over (not you Ayla, you’re not really Asian) and when the media reported the spate of heinous attacks on Asian pizza drivers, beaten to within inches of their lives while making their nightly deliveries.

As is now fairly commonplace, I was a national of three countries, and yet didn’t belong entirely to any of them. Although I knew I was half Japanese, I leaned into my racial ambiguity, relieved to be misidentified as Italian or Samoan or, especially, Maori. Perhaps because it belonged me a little more to New Zealand. Perhaps because it removed a barrier I otherwise felt between myself and the tangata whenua, the people of the land. Or perhaps because I felt a sense of respect and reverence towards Maori people in our country which I did not sense towards Asians or even Pacific Islanders, even though both groups were amply represented in the Auckland population at that time. Even when my elder sister and I flew to Tokyo on Japan Airlines and the bilingual hostesses would for some reason address her in Japanese and me in English, I felt a faint sense of relief. I must look more Caucasian than her, I figured, and I secretly welcomed that.

The first time I ever really saw myself represented in literature was when I read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. Not only is the protagonist a half-Japanese American woman of around the same age as me, but she was also a documentarian working in factual television which, at the time, was almost comically relatable. The fact that I didn’t read that book until 2017 when I was thirty years old, is not to say that representation of my racial makeup didn’t exist in popular culture, but that without having sought it out I simply didn’t encounter it until then. And when I did, I experienced for the first time that recognised phenomenon that occurs when finally receiving something significant is accompanied by an acute sense of how long we’ve been without it. In much the same way as we may not realise how exhausted we are until we finally have a moment to rest. It’s an odd thing, but it can be difficult, impossible even, to distinguish the feeling of being unrepresented until we have something to measure it against. And when that happens, it is the beginning, not the end, of the grieving process. When we begin to see ourselves reflected in our culture, we feel at once the ache of having been unseen. My whole life I was trying to roughly approximate myself with the closest recognised thing. Pakeha-New Zealander, born in Japan with an English Dad. Better defined as ‘Other’.

Today I feel deeply proud of my ancestry. That journey of reconciliation happened in many stages over the course of several years. They included adopting by deed poll my mother’s maiden name; joining a Japanese drumming group which, through music and movement seemed to affect me at some primal level; and rediscovering through adult eyes the exquisite beauty of the aesthetic, architecture, food, onsen and the discipline and devotion of the Japanese custom. Living now in a context that celebrates and admires Japanese culture, it’s hard to imagine the shame I once felt as a kid. Perhaps the world has changed a lot. Or perhaps I have. Most likely both, to some degree.

As Rami reflected on the remarkable story of the gay, immigrant frontman of Queen, he said: “The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this.” And perhaps that, more than anything, is what I can take away from this. To remember, as an immigrant, as a filmmaker, as a woman and as a human being, to invite another perspective. To recognize that to say “I don’t really see you as different.” is rarely enough. To look, deliberately, for who hasn’t been seen and known. To practice the craft of facilitation. Of ministering nascent voices. And of belonging those who may, in one way or another, still feel that they are ‘Other’.